DUBAI (VN) —Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) was hamming it up for the crowds Saturday, even joking about playing Hula-Hoop with the Dubai Tour’s distinctive oval winner’s trophy.
BMC Racing personnel were equally jubilant with Phinney’s stage win and overall victory, his first stage race title since turning pro in 2011.
For BMC sport director Max Sciandri, who was proudly watching Phinney receive the trophy from soccer legend Diego Maradona, the victory is nothing short than confirmation of his talent, and proof of Phinney’s steady transformation into an elite pro.
“Being in the big world with the big boys. This is what everyone expected when he turned pro, it just took some hard work to get here,” Sciandri told VeloNews.
“He’s growing, he’s still young, he’s a kid, he’s maturing, and he’s developing, he’s learning from his mistakes. Physically, he looks different this year, his legs are more defined. He’s getting better and better, and the results are coming.”
The inaugural edition of the four-day Dubai Tour might not be the Tour de France, but for BMC, which has bet heavily on Phinney, the victory marks an important milestone as the 23-year-old enters his fourth pro season.
Phinney’s been close to some big wins before, including a spell in the pink jersey at the 2012 Giro d’Italia, finishing second to Martin in the 2012 world time trial championship, and taking fourth in both the Olympic road race and time trial in the 2012 London Olympic Games.
But this is the first time Phinney has punched through for the win.
After a rocky 2013 season, which saw him fall ill and “be on the back foot all season,” Phinney buckled down over the winter and has come flying out of the gates at the start of the season.
“I haven’t had a problem-free winter, injury or sickness-wise, ever,” he said. “This was my first solid winter. … I invested a lot into this year. I knew it was a very important year so I’m super happy starting the season this way.”
The victory meant the world to Phinney, who turned pro with a heap of expectations and a cycling legacy to live up to.
“I’ve always been patient with myself,” Phinney said. “I kept growing my first two years as a pro, and that only stopped last year [referring to gaining two inches in stature], I needed a little more time to find my comfort zone.”
It’s clearly more comfortable from the top step of the podium, but getting there is never easy, as Phinney had to find out the hard way.
Sciandri said Phinney was in for a shock when he turned pro in 2011 after notching some big results at the espoirs level.
“You can win at the amateur on pure power, with just the huge engine that he has,” Sciandri said. “He needed to learn how to be a pro. How to eat, how to train, how to race. That takes time, and now we’re seeing the results of the hard work.”
Sciandri said Phinney has learned his lessons, worked hard, and is ready to push for even more ambitious goals in 2014.
The time trial victory Wednesday marked the first time that Phinney has beaten reigning world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in a straight-up duel.
The German was upset that he was forced to start last, racing under what he said were much windier conditions than those faced by Phinney, who started early in the first block of riders, something that Martin said brought him a rare time trial loss.
The time trial was also short — just 9.9km — and raced on regular setups as teams did not travel with time trial bikes to faraway Dubai.
All eyes will be on Phinney and Martin when next they face off again, which might not happen again until the Tour de France, depending on their respective schedules and whether Phinney can fight his way onto BMC’s Tour team.
There was no escaping the feeling, however, that Phinney has stepped up a level coming into this season.
Much like Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) becoming a consistent threat to Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the sprints, Phinney will now be shooting for Martin’s TT throne.
“This proves that Taylor can win big races,” Sciandri said. “It didn’t happen as quickly as he expected, but he never gave up. I could see everyone was preparing for the time trial very seriously. Believe me, Tony Martin wanted to win more than anyone.”
Riding with confidence
As Phinney said, the Dubai Tour overall was his to lose since day one, but he still had to deliver.
After Wednesday’s time trial, two of three remaining stages served up little more than street criteriums, but the third stage pushed out of the concrete canyons of Dubai’s surreal urban landscape into the wide-open, wind-blown desert country. A pair of short but steep hills presented a real challenge.
The attacks from the favorites came in earnest, especially from GC threat Peter Sagan (Cannondale), but also from Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida).
Phinney handled the potentially challenging situation with the cool hand of a veteran. BMC rallied around him, keeping the pace high throughout the stages to tamp down attacks, and then watched as Phinney marked the moves. When Sagan saw the lurking shadow of Phinney on his wheel, he sat up and decided to wait to try to win the stage in the sprint.
“Taylor rode really well throughout the race. You could see he was comfortable leading the race,” BMC’s Peter Velits told VeloNews. “We knew the time trial would probably decide everything. When he won, we all worked for Taylor. It’s great, not only for him, but the whole team. The confidence is coming up. We rode well here, Cadel [Evans] was strong Down Under, and it’s the best way to start the season.”
For Phinney, the overall title marks his first stage race win as a pro, and the first since he won the Olympia Tour in 2010 as an amateur.
“It’s a big step for me,” Phinney said. “It’s a big thing to step in as the guy and play that role.”
The win sets the stage for the next step in Phinney’s evolution. Not only can he try to win time trials and reduced-bunch sprints, as well as the northern classics, but he can also vie for overall titles in shorter stage races without heavy climbing.
“It’s a role that I am comfortable in,” Phinney said. “I don’t expect to be top dog just because I won one race. I’ll continue to prove myself, and try to prove it to the team that I deserve that spot, but I don’t take anything as a given.”
Hoping for Tour start
Phinney’s next immediate target is the time trial stage at the Tour Méditerranéen next week in France. To open the 2014 season, BMC singled out three time trials for Phinney in the early going. He was second in the first test at the Tour de San Luís, and won the second one at Dubai Tour.
That level of planning is part of important, behind-the-scenes changes at BMC with the arrival of sporting manager Allan Peiper, who took the reins of the team following last year’s Tour de France.
“I am a very goal-setting type of person. The team has taken the time to set goals for me,” Phinney said. “I am really happy with how things are going at BMC.”
Phinney will then slot into spring-classics mode, and will be hoping to repeat his promising results from 2012, when he rode into the top 20 in his debut at Paris-Roubaix.
On the horizon is a possible first start in the Tour, an ambition that Phinney does not hide.
Peiper confirmed to VeloNews that Phinney is on the long list of riders the team is considering for the 2014 Tour.
This year, BMC is rallying its troops around Tejay van Garderen, while 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans will target the Giro instead.
BMC has already designated a few key climbers to be at van Garderen’s side, including newcomers Velits, Peter Stetina, and Darwin Atapuma, three riders recruited exclusively to give van Garderen solid support in the Alps and Pyrénées.
They will still need a few big motors for the flats and transition stages, especially with some challenging classics-style courses in England and northern France, including the decisive fifth stage with kilometers of treacherous pavé. That’s where Phinney is hoping to fit in.
Peiper didn’t count out a possible Tour start by Phinney, but said he will have to earn it.
“We have a long list of about 15 guys for the Tour,” Peiper said. “Some guys, like Velits, Stetina, Atapuma, they can help Tejay in the mountain stages. Others, like [Michael] Schar and [Marcus] Burghardt, they can be there for the start of the Tour [Hushovd]. Thor is good on the flats, and on the cobblestones.
“Things can change a lot during the season, with illnesses, with crashes. We just have to have a good look at things and make some decisions in a few months, and get that Tour team lined up.”
Peiper, however, is impressed with Phinney’s progress and what he called a “new maturity.”
“In many senses, Taylor is now at the beginning of his career,” Peiper told VeloNews in an interview last month. “What we want to see is consistency and results. He has enormous potential, but up to this point, very little of that has come out.”
Phinney admits he felt the same way.
“I think the time has come for me now,” Phinney said. “I am very happy to be up there, with the best guys, especially with the climbs. It’s just been a longer process than many people expected.”
Winning the Dubai Tour is the fruition of the long, sometimes bumpy road. And as Peiper pointed, Phinney still has his best years ahead of him. For BMC, they’re all quietly hoping this victory the first of many.